Mireille Enos Mireille Enos

Some crime shows pull you in with gunplay and explosions, others with snappy dialogue between bantering buddies. On The Killing, AMC's compelling new mystery, it's the faces that hook you. Whether they're despairing, full of rage, menacing or intensely haunting as in the case of Sarah Linden, played by the superb Mireille Enos — just try to turn away.

With a quiet authority and obsessive dedication to the job, Detective Linden is perhaps the most multilayered and intriguing female cop since Helen Mirren's Jane Tennison on Prime Suspect. The demanding role was exceedingly difficult to cast. "A mild panic had set in about ever finding the right actress," recalls exec producer Veena Sud. "Then Mireille came in. Everything about her — her spirit, her eyes, her hair, her skin — told me we had found Sarah." Enos is mesmerizing as the guarded homicide detective leading the hunt for the killer of 17-year-old Rosie Larsen.

"Mireille has a deeply rooted strength," Sud adds. "That type of physical and psychological strength was critical because Sarah is a successful woman in a very male-dominated profession." That strength got Enos through shooting the pilot in rainy, cold Vancouver when she was five months pregnant. "The work was worth the discomfort," says the actress. "The script was like reading a film. It was some of the most beautiful, clean, soulful writing that I had read in years. Getting to live with those character for years sounded like an actor's dream."

Enos, 35, had dreamed of being an actor since she was a child in Houston. One of five children of a French mother and American father — her French first name is pronounced Me-Ray — Enos studied acting at Brigham Young University before moving to New York City. She quickly conquered Broadway, winning a Tony nomination for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf in 2005. That same year, she met her husband, Alan Ruck (Ferris Bueller's Day Off), when they appeared together on stage.

A veteran guest star in shows ranging from Sex and the City to Shark, the actress attracted attention when she won the dual role of poly-gamous twin sisters in HBO's Big Love. "Playing those girls was such a complete departure from growing up as a modern member of the [Mormon] church," she says. "My sweet mom would call me to say, 'Everyone on your show is crazy!'" When Big Love's casting directors moved on to The Killing, they asked her to audition. The reality and humanity of the series was a big selling point. "In most crime shows," she says, "the victim becomes a nameless, faceless plot point instead of a human life. There's a real hunger for storytelling that shows the actual repercussions of a tragedy like this."

In this week's episode, titled "Vengeance," the police learn that Rosie had stopped by the home of her teacher Bennett Ahmed (Brandon Jay McLaren) the night she disappeared. "The episode's big question," says Sud, "is, 'If you had no doubts who your loved one's killer was and you had an opportunity to kill them, would you take it?'"

Although Enos immediately fell in love with her character, the show's dark themes and Linden's solitariness — despite a loving fiancé (Callum Keith Rennie) and a teenage son — have sometimes been tough. "I've had a few scenes with Michelle Forbes, who's incredible as the victim's mother, where she's going to some crazy dark place and I had to hold back to not follow her there," she recalls. "It would be inappropriate for Sarah to be in tears."

But life on the set is far from gloomy. "Everybody feels good when they're around Mireille," says Joel Kinnaman, the Swedish actor who plays Linden's "equally messed up" partner Stephen Holder. "She's like a big warm smile." The consensus is that Enos is everything that her on-screen alter ego isn't. "She's incredibly happy," says Sud. "Especially when [her 7-month-old daughter, Vesper] is on set."

Enos digs deep to find the pain that drives her character. "Taking on marriage, then motherhood and now the lead of a show, my life is so rich," she says. "Every category of my life is just brimming over." Sarah Linden should be so lucky.

The Killing airs Sunday at 10/9c on AMC.

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